Nov. 23, 2020
By RUTH SCHWEITZER
The winners of the 2020 Vine Awards for Canadian Jewish Literature were announced at a recent live virtual ceremony presented by the Koffler Centre of the Arts. The prize in each of the four award categories was $10,000.
Sarah Leavitt won in the fiction category for her graphic novel Agnes, Murderess (Freehand Books), based on the legend of the Scottish-born British Columbian killer Agnes McVee. The book “explores and then metaphorizes the ways in which childhood and adolescent trauma can pursue us into adulthood, shaping our obsessions, our decisions and our actions,” Andrew Woodrow-Butcher wrote in Quill and Quire.
At the awards ceremony, Leavitt said that although McVee isn’t Jewish, the character is an outsider who feels Jewish to her.
“I always felt when I was writing about Agnes that she is hovering around the edges of the world and trying to figure out what she is looking at because she felt like a complete outsider,” Leavitt said. “And when I was growing up in small towns in Maine and in the Maritime provinces, I always felt like an outsider as a Jew. Agnes to me feels like an honourary Jew.”
The history prize went to Matti Friedman for Spies of No Country (Signal, McClelland & Stewart), about Jewish spies who operated from Beirut during the Israeli War of Independence, from 1947 to 1949. Part of Israel’s first intelligence station in an Arab nation, the four men hailed from the Arab world – Syria and Yemen.
Speaking at the awards ceremony, Friedman quoted spy novelist Johnle Carré, who observed that espionage is the secret theatre of our society.
“Countries have covered stories and hidden themselves, just like their spies, and our clandestine basements conceal insights into the world above ground,” Friedman said. “This observation is why I was drawn to these men and this strange adventure. Who they are has something important to tell us about the country they helped create.”
The awards jury’s favourite for non-fiction was Naomi K. Lewis’ Tiny Lights for Travellers (University of Alberta Press), a memoir about a journey she embarked on after her family found a diary documenting her grandfather’s escape from Nazi-occupied Holland in 1942. Travelling from Amsterdam to Lyon, Lewis retraced his journey to freedom.
Lewis included excerpts from her grandfather’s diary in her book and said she sees him as a co-writer. “I can only hope that he would have approved of how I followed, included and elaborated on his words.”
She added her grandparents and other family members have grappled with issues of identity and belonging and what it means to be Jewish in a sometimes hostile world.
“By researching and writing this book and by speaking to readers, I’ve come to understand more clearly that there are as many ways to be Jewish as there are Jews. Receiving this award has provided me a form of acceptance and a kind of closure that means a great deal to me,” she said.
The young adult/children’s literature winner was Broken Strings (Penguin Random House Canada Young Readers), co-authored by Kathy Kacer and Eric Walters. “Broken Strings seamlessly blends themes of young love, artistic identity, 9/11, grief and the Auschwitz orchestra into a moving and insightful young adult novel,” the awards jury, comprised of authors Judy Batalion, Allan Levine and Shani Mootoo, said in a release.
Speaking at the awards ceremony, Kacer said that writing the book gave her the chance to write about an aspect of Holocaust history she had long wanted to explore – the orchestras made up of Jewish musicians who performed on the train platforms of death camps, “playing those unsuspecting new prisoners to their death.”
A child of Holocaust survivors, Kacer has dedicated her life and career to writing about the Holocaust for young readers. “This was one more chance to pass important history on to the next generation,” she said.
Kacer added that as co-writers, she and Walters, an award-winning author of young adult fiction, developed “a seamless working relationship, trusting where the story was going, challenging those moments that didn’t quite work for one of us and rewriting and rewriting until it sounded exactly as we wanted it to.”
The 2020 Vine Awards shortlists included:
• Fiction: David Bezmozgis, Immigrant City (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd) and David Szalay, Turbulence (McClelland & Stewart).
• History: Zelda Abramson & John Lynch, The Montreal Shtetl: Making Home After the Holocaust (Between the Lines), and Heidi J.S. Tworek, News from Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications, 1900-1945 (Harvard University Press).
• Non-fiction: Ayelet Tsabari, The Art of Leaving (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd) and Diana Wichtel, Driving to Treblinka (Heritage House Publishing).
• Young adult/children’s literature: Edeet Ravel, A Boy Is Not a Bird(Groundwood Books) and Kathy Kacer, Masters of Silence (Annick Press).
The books can be purchased at benmcnallybooks.com.